When looking for Best Picture, you’re usually looking for a five key factors:
1) it’s a likable, celebratory film filled with lots of (sometimes popular) actors (Chicago, Argo)
2) it’s historically too important to ignore (Schindler’s List, The Hurt Locker)
3) it’s rewarding an overdue director who is motivated to win, film is likable enough. (The Departed, No Country)
4) The heart wants what it wants (The Artist, Slumdog Millionaire).
5) It really is THAT good (The Godfather).
Let’s face it, we may never see a Godfather type win again. The Godfather seems better now when we remember it back. When it was up for Best Picture it was doing battle with Cabaret it only won three Oscars, in fact. Most of the time, the Oscar race is driven by buzz — not Miss Right necessarily, but rather, Miss Right Now. The Godfather was Miss Right Now then, and it’s Miss Right in 2013. But you can’t really know at the time whether a film is great or just a passing fancy. The way filmmaking and Hollywood changes impacts how we view our past. Movies like The Godfather aren’t made much anymore and when they are there are simply too many voices there to oppose them. Movies have to come without baggage now, without major “flaws,” and have to run a fierce gauntlet between September and December, flying under radar, avoiding bullets. Think of them as the cast of Lone Survivor.
I was in line at the Whole Foods the other day and people were talking about movies. The cashier was saying how he gets screeners so now he’s seeing everything. The grocery bagger asked him what is the best movie he’s seen, what is the one everyone should see — said “Captain Phillips.” I then asked him what film he thought would win Best Picture and he smirked and said, “August: Osage County.” You see, to him that looks like an Oscars movie. If he only knew. I told them both 12 Years a Slave would win. But I don’t know if that’s true or not. Wouldn’t that be wild if the impossible became possible?
If you’re paying attention to the buzz of late you’ll know that one major cloud of it is swirling around David O. Russell’s American Hustle. You can’t really buy that kind of buzz, manufacture it or force it. It is either there or it isn’t and this film, for whatever reason, has it. It is competing with two films that captured the early buzz — 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. Both have their own strengths heading into the race but if Best Picture is determined by actors the Hustle ensemble could prove the deciding factor in a tight race.
American Hustle seems to be wowing audiences and critics even without a very clear plot — no one really knows what happens in it and no one seems to care. It’s a screwball comedy with fantastic performances all around and it is exactly the kind of thing Oscar voters love. It reminds me, in fact, of Chicago when it was up against The Pianist. You can’t really fight that kind of love — it is an unstoppable force.
But the season has only just begun and both 12 Years and Gravity are equally strong. We know that those pesky Academy voters are going to want to watch American Hustle and Gravity with the fam as they settle around for the holidays, a cup of hot cocoa in hand, ready for some holiday cheer. They aren’t going to want to watch 12 Years a Slave until they can find a mailman to deliver their balls back to them. You remember when the Academy had balls? It seems they have been transformed into bobbles for the Christmas tree. Oh Happy Happy Dayz. Actually, you can’t really blame them. Who wants to be bummed out during the holidays? And since the Academy pushed back the date for Oscar we really have to decide Best Picture now as Best Picture to watch over the holidays. The voters will have nominations ballots in hand December 27th, between Christmas and New Year’s, and must have them back by January 8th. So you’re really looking at vacation time for those still working and holiday time for those who aren’t.
This would be a good time to start predicting American Hustle to take it all — it has that Argo-type thing about it that makes it the easier choice than picking between films that hit harder. It isn’t a bad film by any means and a perfectly fine choice for Best Picture of the year in a year of great films.
In the absence of having a pair, the Academy won’t want to vote for a film they haven’t seen. The hardcore whipping scenes, the big fat bummer that is 12 Years a Slave will have to struggle to be seen at all. Once they see it how will they then vote for it? They won’t be able to find a happy place, hell, not even the New York Film Critics could find that happy place. The Academy’s choice will be predicted by the Producers Guild choice and the DGA’s choice. I don’t know how anyone can begrudge David O. Russell the chance at a big win. After getting so close with Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, with a history of films that includes Three Kings and Flirting with Disaster, he’s more than earned his place in Oscar history. Unless he makes a period film about Nazis, maybe throw in a physical disability, he may never get this close again. More power to him if he gets there this year.
Gravity has a couple of major stumbling blocks — the first being the Academy is going to have get over their prejudice against big-budget effects films. Oh, and 3D. To date, no 3D film has ever won. Hugo and Avatar came close but more traditional Academy members aren’t likely to embrace this new technology, particularly if the film really needs that third dimension to be seen at its fullest. Avatar is unwatchable without 3D and Hugo is vastly improved. Gravity works without it but the awe factor is dampened somewhat.
For me, if The Wolf of Wall Street is my number one film of the year, 12 Years a Slave is a close second. It is a faithful and nearly verbatim retelling of Solomon Northup’s telling of his own story. In a way it doesn’t show us anything we didn’t already know. McQueen tells it, though, outside the rules of Hollywood. When you get a macro look at the time we’re living in, 12 Years a Slave is the right film for right now. In the second term of the Obama presidency, at the tipping point of nationwide marriage equality and the continual fight for affordable health care and civil rights overall, the clarity of individual freedom has never been better defined than it is in 12 Years a Slave. Moreover, on the heels of Trayvon Martin, the rise of idiots like Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, the brewing conflicts between the racists and those who oppose them is still as hot as it’s ever been. If Lincoln was the film that should have won last year (or life of Pi — either of them a good choice, hell, Zero Dark Thirty for that matter) 12 Years a Slave is the film that should win in 2013, 74 years after Gone with the Wind became the ONLY film to date about slavery that won Best Picture.
The big tremor this week is the rise of American Hustle. It will do very well at the box office but more importantly it will make for good screener over the holidays. It is an alternative to those who might be too conflicted over the other films. But if voters are going to want to reward American Hustle, it would follow that David O. Russell would win Best Director. In the years where there was a split vote, most of the time the winning Best Picture did not have a director who was “important” enough to win. Russell isn’t that guy. He isn’t Hugh Hudson. Therefore, I believe if Hustle wins it will be a celebration for Russell and his entire canon of films and he will win Best Director. I think if Steve McQueen wins Best Director at the DGA, 12 Years a Slave will then win Best Picture. I cannot predict what the Producers Guild is going to do.
The Wolf of Wall Street has shaken up the race. It is not an “Oscars movie” but the filmmaking is so utterly brilliant it will be hard for them to ignore, whether or not some members were offended. At 71 years old, for Scorsese to have made this film, and if they don’t nominate him for it, it will be one of those bizarre Oscar stories for the ages. I expect he will get nominated. But I could also see the film getting shut out almost completely.
However you slice it this year, a good movie is going to win. Such was the case last year, though I believe that of those that were close to winning, the absolute weakest choice among them eventually triumphed. To my mind, this year, American Hustle is that movie. That’s why it has a very good chance to win. Just saying.
1. 12 Years a Slave
2. American Hustle
4. Inside Llewyn Davis
5. The Wolf of Wall Street
6. Captain Phillips
10. Dallas Buyers Club
11. Saving Mr. Banks
12. Fruitvale Station
1. Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
2. David O. Russell, American Hustle
3. Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
4. Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
5. Martin Scorsese, the Wolf of Wall Street
Alt. Alexander Payne, Nebraska and Spike Jonze for Her
1. Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
2. Sandra Bullock, Gravity
3. Judi Dench, Philomena
4. Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
5. Meryl Streep, August: Osage County
1. Bruce Dern, Nebraska
2. Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
3. Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years
4. Robert Redford, All is Lost
5. Forest Whitaker, The Butler
alt: Leonardo DiCaprio, Wolf of Wall Street, Christian Bale, American Hustle
Best Supporting Actor
1. Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
2. Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
3. Michael Fassbender, 12 years a Slave
4. Jonah Hill, Wolf of Wall Street
5. Daniel Bruhl, Rush
Best Supporting Actress
1. Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
2. Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
3. Oprah Winfrey, The Butler
4. June Squibb, Nebraska
5. Julia Roberts, August: Osage County